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I was recently on a road trip with my family, within an hour of our target destination on one of this country’s major interstates.  We had been in the car for hours, the terrain was flat, the summer sun blazed through the windows, and the states had passed by.  As a truck lawyer, I spent much of the drive watching logos pass by the windshield – current clients, former clients, great white whales of the trucking industry.  My husband and I observed trucker behaviors and rather than comment on my husband’s driving, I was constantly shouting things like “He’s coming over – give him space!”  “He’s going too fast – he needs four football fields to stop!”  “It’s not a question of if he’s getting in a wreck, it’s a question of when! Watch him brake!” I lectured my car’s occupants on the finer points of accident reconstruction and dash cam videos.  Why the truck stops were getting busy at 4 p.m.  

And then, as I gazed out the window on the eastbound side, I saw a tractor-trailer stopped in the slow lane, a small SUV tangled in the median wire.  Traffic was at a standstill behind them.  Flashing lights surrounded the vehicles – both of them unmoving, and obviously unable.  As we drove past, I verbally triaged with the practiced eye of a defense lawyer – two vehicles. Police. Ambulance.  Tow already present. Damage to the median wire. Tractor-trailer disabled.  No sign of the occupants.  This was not good.  I checked the company, googled them quickly.  And I made the call.  “Safety department please.”  When I spoke to the safety responder on duty, the driver had not yet reported the accident.  Perhaps he or she was injured and could not.  Perhaps he or she was so shaken up it was not possible.  Or perhaps he or she didn’t want to get in trouble.    Or, perhaps her or she had, but the information had not yet made its way to the safety department.  

We can preach the importance of initial reporting and rapid response until we are blue in the face. We can pass out instruction cards and sign orientation accident procedure acknowledgments.  But until protocol is followed, insurance premiums will keep rising and risk and safety personnel won’t have the opportunity to manage the situation from the get go.  So often I hear “we really learned from this situation.”  Please learn before it costs.  Before it hurts.  Like a coach who teaches players to execute a play, to prepare a response for a possible attack, teach drivers to execute a response to emergency preparedness.

At a minimum, practice these steps after an accident:

1. Drivers report incident to dispatch or safety and safety/risk gets the information.

2. Contact is made with driver to ensure he/she is a) uninjured and b) mentally/emotionally ok.  Once driver’s condition is established, collect initial details of loss.  Determine who/what/where/when.  Take notes.  Tell driver to either call police or wait until police arrive.  It is always recommended to wait until a police report is made regardless if the other party leaves.  This allows any property damage to be documented and any injury or lack of injury to be documented.  Yes, it slows the driver down, but it also preserves information in the long run and can assist with any subrogation or defense efforts.  

3.  Always ask the driver if there has been a tow, a transport, or a ticket.  If so, send for drug/alcohol testing.

4.  Always ask the driver to take photographs.  Pictures should be of any damage and should also include the scene, if possible, and all involved vehicles.

5.  If safety/risk gets the sense this is a significant accident, assess for further involvement of other parties.  For instance, if equipment is in the ditch, assess if you want your tow equipment there (if in range) and immediately convey that information to the local authorities.  Assessing any tow issues early and communicating with local authorities regarding the plan can save money on future tow expenses.  If you want to choose your tow company, immediately convey that information to the local authorities.  If there is significant bodily injury, assess if you need to contact a third party administrator and get an independent adjuster on the scene.  Keep in mind, depending on the severity of the accident, you may have to push to get someone on the scene within a couple of hours versus a couple of days.  Timing matters.

6. Is your driver stranded? Assess logistics and who you have in the area or if you need an Uber to a rest stop.

7.  What about your cargo? Is it damaged? Make sure to contact all parties and notify delivery will be delayed.  Do you need a replacement truck? Are you in range that you can send a spare trailer? Do you even have authority to break the seal? Is it a refrigerated load?  Make sure this is handled and communicated promptly so as to mitigate a cargo claim. 

8.  Do you need an accident reconstructionist on the scene?  Is there liquid or other debris that needs to be captured or preserved? Skid marks? Yaw marks? Anything that needs to  be documented or measured?  Does the ECM data need to be downloaded to preserve?  Depending on the engine, data could be lost if the truck is turned on or moved or another hard brake event occurs.  Know what equipment you have, what you need, and how to protect it.

These are just some of the in-the-moment considerations that a significant accident can bring.  Depending on the facts of the loss, other factors may also be in play – for instance – what happens if the driver is taken into custody? The bottom line is to make sure you have a game plan, everyone in the organization is informed, and you are prepared.  Prior preparation prevents poor performance, particularly in emergency situations.

For questions, comments, or assistance with rapid response or accident preparedness, please feel free to contact Amy Tracy (atracy@setlifflaw.com) at 804-377-1264 or Steve Setliff (ssetliff@setlifflaw.com) at 804-377-1261.  Mr. Setliff and Ms. Tracy are also available to meet with safety professionals and drivers to discuss what to do – and what not to do – post crash. 

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